"Bouken Danshaken Don San-Heart Hen takes the world of horizontally-scrolling shooters and cracks it with a sledgehammer two or three times. Produced by IíMax for the PC Engine in 1992, it combines a few out-of-the-ordinary gameplay features with the sort of insane visuals I havenít seen since the last time I dropped acid. "
Bouken Danshaken Don San-Heart Hen takes the world of horizontally-scrolling shooters and cracks it with a sledgehammer two or three times. Produced by IíMax for the PC Engine in 1992, it combines a few out-of-the-ordinary gameplay features with the sort of insane visuals I havenít seen since the last time I dropped acid.
Itís not a constant barrage of the unusual, though, and thatís what makes the weirdness of San-Heart so appealing. This game is quite fond of sticking you in what seems to be an ordinary level and then thrusting you into combat with a boss so strange that you have to step back and ask yourself, ďWhat the hellís goiní on here?Ē
The drab cityscape of the first stage wonít excite many players. Hell, Iíd aborted two earlier attempts to play San-Heart just because I found the initial moments so boring. Endure until the end of the level, though, and youíll be rewarded with your first bit of proof that this is no mundane shooter. Before your eyes, an enormous, demonic infant scales a skyscraper; its torso and legs separated by a chain of eyeballs. To actually render the brat vulnerable to attack, you must blast all those misplaced peepers. Of course, doing so causes this fellowís attacks to increase in intensity, so hopefully you wonít waste much time in finishing him off when the opportunity is presented.
After that fight is over, things go back to normal with a dull second stage which climaxes with a relatively tame boss. Personally, I was wondering if that first boss was an aberration -- the one creative foe in a dull game. A few minutes later, the game decisively proved me wrong and made me glad I resisted the temptation to throw in the towel for the third time.
The majestic third stage finally takes the player outside of the city, as you fly by a mountain range at night. After you wipe out a few waves of enemies, the tranquility of the level is forever shattered by a gigantic head plummeting onto the screen and assaulting you! It sure freaked me out the first time it happened, especially since I had moved to the right side of the screen directly into the path of his grand entrance.
Shaking myself off, I recovered from this blow to my morale and eventually subdued the big fellow. As I continued through the level, night gradually turned to day as a mellow, but beautifully epic song reached its crescendo. Soon, as I fought a cloud-riding cyclops over a fortress, I thought this wonderful stage had reached its end -- but I was wrong. Defeating the levelís true boss merely granted me access to the fortressí interior, where I was forced to navigate a short, but intense, base level cluttered with claustrophobic corridors and near-constant deathtraps.
And the thrills kept coming. I eventually ascended to the top of this base to fight a fierce dragon. I chased a flying head over an ocean and through a city before finally catching up to it in a cave, where it was attached to the body of something that reminded me of Ronald McDonaldís olí pal Grimace. I traveled through an underwater cave, careful to not let currents send me into bullets and mines, only to descend into the mouth of a bizarre whale-like creature. I soared above arctic mountains, shooting gigantic grimacing snowballs as they flew at me, only to eventually be confronted by their creator -- a massive snowman that could take an obscene amount of punishment. And finally, I challenged the final, unforgettable triumvirate of bosses -- a series of battles which culminates with a being that morphs from an eyeball to what must have been Pac-Manís psychotic, demented uncle. Thereís some simply amazing stuff here.
Now if only the game as a whole could live up to all this awesome imagery. The problem with San-Heart is that each good thing in the game seems to be balanced out by a less-desirable aspect. All those awesome bosses and quirky levels (like the cave inside the whaleís mouth, for example) are great, but on the other hand, you spend nearly three full levels flying through what looks to be the same dull city. Many of the bosses are large and well-drawn, but nearly all the regular enemies are dull and unimaginative. Yeah, I know I opened this review by saying that the weird stuff had more impact due to there being so much relatively normal stuff, but would it have hurt IíMax to exhibit a bit more creativity in filling in the space between some of the major encounters?
The constant give-and-take nature of San-Heart isnít simply restricted to its graphics, as the gameplay also is affected. It wonít take you long to realize your ship has an eight-bar life meter (with most attacks taking one to four hits off it). Sadly, in most levels, the computer uses your ability to take a good deal of damage to be as cheap as hell. Baddies will fly at you at high speeds from all angles with no warning and spray the screen with bullets before you have any opportunity to react. In the early levels, there are a few scattered areas where things get intense to the point where luck plays as big a role as skill in determining survival, but in the last couple of levels, it seems like youíre constantly being bombarded by foes in such quantities that itís nearly impossible to remain unscathed for any amount of time.
You also donít have that large of a weapon selection. As you collect power-ups, you can get about three different types of primary fire, missiles and bombs to offer alternate methods of dispensing destruction and a few types of shields. Unfortunately, I just didnít find any of the types of primary fire to be overly cool, like some of the better means of spreading death found in games like the Genesisí Bio-Hazard Battle or this systemís Aldynes. In a neat twist, though, you can flip between shields by pausing the action and scrolling through a list. For areas chock-full of cannon fodder, the rotating shield may be the way to go, as it will eliminate many weaker attacks before they can reach you. However, strong attacks may require the powerful frontal shield. You have to hit another button to call it up and it will only last for a second or two each use, but it can protect you from virtually everything but a head-on collision with a foe.
As wildly inconsistent as many of this gameís elements are, it still is worth the average shooter fanís time. Get through the first two stages and youíll be introduced to a number of awesome soundtrack selections. Not only is the third stage host to one of the all-time masterpiece selections of old-school gaming, but a few other areas provide their own aural goodness. The underwater stageís music seemed to perfectly fit that areaís theme and a number of the base and cave areas also had tunes that got my attention.
Iíd be remiss if I forgot to mention that unlike most shooters, San-Heart has a story that manifests itself through little scenes between stages. Donít ask me what the plot entails, as itís all in Japanese, but to say I was intrigued would be an understatement. The thought that IíMax actually tried to create dialogue to tie together attacks from things like giant snowmen and killer infants just strikes me as really awesome for some reason. Of course, odds are the characters are giving some generic ďI must fight Dr. Evilguy and his Evilbots!Ē oratory, so maybe not knowing exactly whatís going on is for the best. Still, I found all this to add to the mystique of the game, making me like it a little bit more.
And thatís the appeal of San-Heart in a nutshell -- itís just too cool to be ruined by its flaws. If I based my grade solely on gameplay, itíd probably be somewhere between ďmediocreĒ and ďmundaneĒ. But when I factor in the gigantic, grotesque bosses and the sheer amount of creativity used in crafting some of those opponents, as well as the levels they reside in, San-Heart really grows on me. Itís not a perfect game, but itís definitely an enjoyable piece of junk food for the senses and a shooter Iím not afraid to recommend. That is, as long as you can survive the first couple of stages without completely losing interest.
Featured community review by overdrive (April 29, 2005)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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